What Happened to Catholic Nuns?

05/28/2015 08:09 am ET | Updated May 20, 2016

As a suburban Catholic grade school student, I'd sometimes visit the parish church during recess time and stand, my arms extended sideways, before the high altar. In those few short minutes I did my best to look like a statue: Rosary draped from my right hand, perfect posture, unblinking eyes. To the right and left of me were the real statues, behind me the high gold tabernacle. Once or twice while lost like this I'd see the crouching figure of a full-robed nun in the distant organ loft. For an instant, I'd try to make out who she was, since I knew all the sisters at Drexel Hill's Saint Bernadette's parochial school, but the nun in the loft never revealed herself.

I imagined that the figure was the young nun with the beautiful eyebrows who I used to follow in the hallways and often go looking for during the longer recess at noon. One day, hot on her trail, I got my wish: she spotted me roaming the halls when I should have been in the schoolyard. With a triple click of her clicker, she announced, "Stay right there, young man!"

A little bit of heaven followed as I was able to observe her walking towards me, robe and veil flowing, a walking apparition. Expecting a scolding, I was dismayed when I saw the beginnings of a smile. When she suggested I should be out playing with the other children, I knew she recognized my affection for her.

Call it a little boy fixation, but the truth is, I grew up liking nuns. There was something in me that always wanted to please them, even the tough nuns with a penchant for twisting ear lobes (I had mine twisted on more than one occasion).

Transferred to another parish in the third grade, I repeated my high altar statue act in a heavily ornate Gothic church. The nuns at this parish were Saint Joseph nuns in high-top box veils and flowing habits. The St. Joe's habit was so elaborate it resembled architecture; this seemed to go with the fact that you could always count on a Saint Joe's nun being strict. When they weren't talking about morality or the sinfulness of reading teen magazines and exposed female cleavage, they were telling students to "wipe that smirk off your face."

Can you imagine how far old-style St. Joe's nuns would get in Philadelphia public schools today? In the old days, teachers could do anything to students, and parents mostly always deferred to teachers and nuns when it came to their kids. If you came home and complained about a nun-teacher, the first question parents asked was: "What did you do to deserve it?" Today the reaction would be quite the opposite, much like, "What did those teachers do to my sweet little Johnny?"

In those days I'd sometimes stay after school and help the St. Joe's nuns carry their weighty book bags back to the convent after school. Being invited inside the convent was always a treat. It was there that I got to see the nuns pin back their veils and put on aprons while they cooked the evening meal. A nun's secret life was endlessly fascinating--that is, until they got rid of their habits.

The new St. Joe's nuns with their tiny cross lapel pins, stretch pants suits, and "hairdresser" hair just don't have the same magic. I make no apologies: I want nuns to be nuns, not real estate CEO's or women executives with dolled-up hair. About a year ago I had the privilege of talking to a modern St. Joe's nun when I went to a friend's Vesper memorial service at Rosemont College (the friend was Karen Lenz, a truly great woman who operated one of Philly's two Catholic Worker houses).

At the reception I sat beside a neatly coiffed woman whom I assumed was a college administrator or bank executive. She wore an emerald brooch, amber earrings, and a silk scarf, as well as a perfume I've often smelled while walking through the women's department in Macy's. While slicing into a lamb chop, I asked the woman, "What do you do for a living?" When she told me that she was a St. Joe's nun I thought of the old nuns in my parochial school with their towering headgear and veils. What a difference forty years makes.

"You're really a nun?" I said. I looked in vain for a microscopic cross lapel pin that might indicate Sisterhood, but instead found the brooch that indicated Boscov's.

Not long ago, when one walked the streets of Center City, the only women wearing flowing religious garb were Catholic nuns or maybe a few Anglican or Lutheran nuns. For years, I'd pass an Anglican nun in full traditional habit sitting in the concourse at Suburban Station asking for donations (this nun looked very much like Mother Katherine Drexel). While many Catholic women's religious orders ditched the habit after Vatican II, many orders did not. It's also true that some religious orders have returned to the traditional habit. It may seem odd, but surveys indicate that "secular dress" orders like the St. Joe's nuns are experiencing a decline in membership, whereas convents where the traditional habit is worn are experiencing huge membership booms. The fact is, I've always believed that visual symbols are powerful because they relay a message.

Walk through Center City today and you'll find that the only women wearing black flowing garb are Muslim women wearing burqas. These women do so proudly, unselfconsciously, unashamedly. Of course, if one wants to see traditionally garbed Catholic nuns one can always visit the Convent of the Pink Sisters at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, although you will never find these nuns on the street.

At my parish church, St. Michael Archangel Orthodox church in Northern Liberties, I had my first interaction with an Orthodox nun from the famous St. Martyr Princess Elisabeth Monastery founded in 1999 in the Minsk region of Russia. This particular sister was touring the States to give a lecture on the work of her convent and school, a boarding home for children and adults with special needs, and a homecare facility for mentally challenged children. The sister in question wore a full, traditional habit, standard operating procedure for nuns in the Eastern Church.

The same might be said of the Dali Lama, who travels the world dressed as a Buddhist monk, and who has never gone to Brooks Brothers, Macy's, or Boscov's in order to be outfitted in secular clothing or jewelry of any kind so that he can "fit in" and disappear.